A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cart is to Horse as Streetcar is to Zoning

Jonah Freemark's Transport Politic blog has crystallized the reason why Portland, Maine isn't ready for a streetcar yet: we still don't have the zoning in place, nor do we have progressive developers willing to invest in transit-oriented development.

Streetcars, it is said, will bring new construction and the densification of districts that are served by the new rail lines. But streetcars alone aren’t enough to spur construction of residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods with transit service. Just as important are the municipal regulations guiding new development. If zoning prevents large buildings around streetcar corridors, how exactly will streetcars lead to new construction? 
Freemark compares two streetcar projects — one in Portland, Oregon, where zoning allows for the construction of taller buildings without parking, and one in St. Louis, where the zoning code is more similar to Portland's, with 1960s-era parking requirements and height limits that prohibit buildings taller than 45 feet high. The latter project looks likely to be little more than a toy train, and a drain on the local transit system's budget, while Portland's project was conceived from the beginning as a tool to promote urban density, and has spurred billions of dollars' worth of new investment in walkable neighborhoods.

Our golden opportunity to implement transit-oriented zoning codes along a possible streetcar corridor was the "Transforming Forest Avenue" study conducted last year. When that study was about to start, I wrote a post about its potential to foster transit-oriented development along a new streetcar corridor. Here's what I wrote back then:
...even though a streetcar might be possible, it won't happen unless three very uncertain conditions are met:
  • key property owners along Forest Avenue and in Bayside get smart enough to replace their parking lots with new buildings, to help the line attract enough riders;
  • the surrounding neighborhoods remain open to having new neighbors, more businesses, and taller buildings along Forest Avenue, and
  • a leader in city government can champion the concept and secure funding from state and federal partners.

Unfortunately, there was very little that was transformative about the Forest Avenue study's recommendations. It failed to engage landowners or produce a more progressive zoning code per requirements #1 and #2, and now that the study's complete and part of the Comprehensive Plan, Forest Avenue has basically been ruled out as a financially-feasible streetcar corridor. Besides, the only new development along that street in recent years has involved new banks that insisted on building large parking lots and drive-through lanes (I'm looking at you, Key Bank, Town & Country Credit Union, and cPort Credit Union). When our local financial institutions are building stuff that's outwardly hostile to walkable urbanism, it's not a cause for optimism.

And even if the zoning gets fixed, it's anything but certain whether local developers are smart enough to shift their thinking out of their 20th century mall mentalities. Even the city's more progressive developers insist on including ugly parking garages under condos being built within a stone's throw of the Old Port — it hardly seems likely that these people could build the kind of car-free population density that a streetcar would require.

As for requirement #3, Councilor Marshall seems to be emerging as the champion the city needs to advocate for transit-oriented development. But he needs to be more than an advocate for a streetcar for the sake of a streetcar — he also needs to be a champion for transit-oriented, walkable zoning codes. In his 6 years on the Council so far, there's been precious little movement to relax zoning codes to the point where genuinely transit-oriented development would be feasible. Given that any streetcar is still years away, though, now would be a good time to start working on that problem.

1 comment:

Jim C. said...

The Bayside redevelopment approved last night by city council I hope is followed up by serious thinking about infrastructure and a streetcar linking neighborhoods on and off the peninsula with people throughout the city who would like to move about town to work and to shop without relying on cars. Of course I believe a streetcar is the way to go -- like The Other Portland I believe a streetcar would do a lot to foster a stronger "sense of place" in our city and like The Other Portland's experience with its Pearl District a streetcar would foster development in Bayside and other neighborhoods outside of the Old Port.